On the Range
October, 1995. Game warden Mike Moore was exhausted from a night of patrolling for spotlighters in one of the more remote regions of eastern Montana. Anxious to get home to Miles City and his wife and two daughters, Moore considered taking a seldom-used cut-across road to save time, but recent rains had mudded the graveled two-track so he decided against it.
Had he taken the shortcut it's likely the warden would have encountered a man stranded after running out of gas. How this motorist would have responded to a lawman's approach we will never know; he had that night attacked a farm family north of Miles City leaving two dead and two severely injured. Radio chatter had alerted Moore to the murders but he'd been focused on poachers and the crime scene was a distant 100 miles. Moore made it home. The murderer received help from an unsuspecting rancher but was apprehended by a SWAT team later on a beach near Corpus Christi, Texas.
"It's one of those 'what if' situations," Moore reflects now. "Had I taken the cut-across road I could have been a hero or I could have been killed."
Moore's "what if" scenario is not entirely uncommon for our nation's fish-and-game officers who routinely patrol remote areas by themselves. The idea that game wardens only check bag limits and licenses is out-dated in a world where drug gangs, illegal immigrants, and even terrorists might frequent unpopulated regions; and poachers themselves, illegally pursuing lucrative trophies at the risk of huge fines and prison time, are potentially more dangerous than ever before. For the long hours and danger, wardens' salaries often start at only $12 or $13 an hour, consequently, many states are hard pressed to recruit and keep game officers.
Moore, no relation to this writer, wanted to be a game warden since a sixth grader in upstate New York. Inspired by outdoors magazines, he headed west to a community college in Wyoming where he met a young man from Eureka, Montana. Moore eventually moved to Eureka, became a logger, married his boss's daughter, and enrolled at the University of Montana in Missoula. To pay for school he enlisted in the Air Force in 1983 and was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls with the base police. Discharged four years later, he returned to Missoula where he completed his degree in wildlife biology. He worked three seasons for the USFS as a wilderness ranger before being hired by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in 1989. To be a Montana warden both a four-year degree and law enforcement experience are required.
Moore's first assignment was Jordan, Montana, a remote and rugged ranching community at the edge of the Missouri River Breaks best-known for the Montana Freemen Standoff in 1996. One of his first contacts there was with the late Benny Binion, an infamous Las Vegas casino owner who maintained a large ranch in Garfield County. "I was a rookie warden and I went to the Binion ranch to introduce myself," Moore said. "I knocked on the door and heard someone tell me to come in. I found Benny sitting at the kitchen table in his bathrobe in the middle of the afternoon reading a Bible with a pistol laying beside it."
Moore was later transferred to Region 7 headquarters in Miles City where he's now Captain with 11 wardens under him including a sergeant, a field investigator and nine field wardens. Region 7 is Montana's largest and its turnover is high. Part of that is the geography -- it doesn't have the mountain wilderness, trout streams, and ice-cold lakes that can be found in the western part of the state -- but low pay, long hours, and loneliness are contributors, too.
"You have to really want to do this," Moore explained. "You have to really believe in protecting the state's natural resources."
He has seen some changes in his 21 years with MFWP. "There is more wanton poaching than ever because of the commercialization of wildlife," hey says. "There's still the few opportunistic sportsmen who do something they normally wouldn't do, but most hunters and fishermen are compliant. The growing problem is organized poaching rings." These rings, Moore explained, are after trophies not meat, and the investigations may take two or three years, involve travel across the nation, hundreds of hours of interviews, and in some cases, dangerous undercover work.
But, Moore says the most dangerous situation is apprehending spotlighters. "Spot-lighters know they are breaking the law and will face enhanced penalties. Plus, there are always at least two, sometimes a carload, and often alcohol is involved. "I've had rifles pointed at me three times," he says. "One time was real obvious."
And Moore's nearness to a murder suspect has happened twice. Last year a shooter killed a woman and wounded her friend in a nightclub parking lot. Moore and fellow warden Todd Anderson were patrolling for spotlighters when they identified the suspect's vehicle. "We passed it to confirm the I. D. but we scrunched down in our seats in case the bullets started flying." The wardens called for backup which included a Homeland Security helicopter crew but the suspect took his own life.
Saving lives is more satisfying. A few years ago a grain truck lost its brakes on a steep grade approaching the Yellowstone River and struck several vehicles before rear-ending a pickup truck driven by a retired rancher. The pickup was pushed through the railing and dropped some 100 feet to the cold and muddy Yellowstone. "We heard the radio call and Bryce Christensen (Moore's captain at that time) and I launched a jet boat," Moore said. Firemen and paramedics were on the scene but without a boat they couldn't get to the pickup which had miraculously landed on its wheels. "There wasn't much time," Moore said. "The cab was filling up and the water was cold. We picked up the firemen and got them to the truck." The retired rancher survived and later stopped at the MFWP office to thank Moore and Christensen for helping save his life.
Like most jobs in law enforcement, being a game warden involves thousands of hours of monotony punctuated by rare moments of excitement. "Interviewing skills are our bread-and-butter," says Region 7 Sergeant Jack Austin. To that end, Moore and other ranking game officials stress people skills. A perspective warden might be a fine outdoorsman, rugged in constitution and diligent in investigations, but if he can't work with people he likely won't become a Montana warden.
Moore, for his part, misses being a sergeant. A captain's duties involve more paperwork than he likes. He accepts that as part of the job, but with a black handlebar mustache and piercing eyes, Moore looks more Old West gunfighter than pencil pusher, more Wild Bill Hickock than desk-bound bureaucrat. And true to form, when hunting season rolls around he's often in the field alone patrolling the remote gravel roads of a region larger than several eastern states. The bad guys, after all, are still out there. "These hard core poaching types," Moore says with conviction. "We have to put them out of business."